Maryland Grows

Beautiful Edibles

Hello from the Derwood Demo Garden in Montgomery County! (Well, not literally from, though sometimes I wish I could just take my laptop and blog on the spot. Hm, wonder if there’s wireless access yet?)

I wanted to introduce you to some of the prettier plants in our garden this year, including my favorite vegetable beauty contest winner, okra. Okra, you say? All right, some of the taller heirloom varieties can get a little spiky and awkward, but even they have the most gorgeous mallow-family flowers, and the dwarf hybrid we’re growing, Little Lucy, is just lovely.

It’s not particularly productive, but if you’re not fond of okra, that could be a positive feature!

Here’s how our little Edible Beauty bed looked last month:

The purpose of this bed is to demonstrate that veggies can be beautiful. I think this is something many people need to learn, including lots of homeowner’s associations who say “no vegetables in the front yard, please!” We can change minds! Unfortunately the one thing we can’t change is the appetite of deer and rabbits and other critters who say “yum! Veggies in the front yard!” and start snacking – my whole property would be an example of edible landscaping if it wasn’t for my furry friends who like to visit and munch. So you may need to confine the beautiful veggies to the fenced areas, or try working in the ones the critters don’t like. They usually don’t care for the onion family, chives for example:

And hot peppers are also not popular:

I have never had trouble with animals eating any of my pepper plants, sweet or hot, but your mileage may vary as they say.

We just pulled out the gorgeous Bull’s Blood beets as they were ready to eat. Here’s a closeup of the deep red leaf, with a calendula in flower:

The back of the bed is Swiss chard and then climbing Malabar spinach and pole beans. I plan to pull out the lettuce this week (it lasted much longer than expected, since the heat held off) and plant a few Hestia runner beans that do not run but make little clumps. We have traditional runner beans across the way, on the fence behind the tomato bed, looking lovely in bloom:

Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, but you can work with a more conventional standard of gardening beauty and still have your veggies. Choose plants that stay compact (determinate tomatoes, for example, rather than a sprawling indeterminate variety), think about color of leaf and fruit, be thoughtful about your choice of supports and your mulching technique, use the same design principles you would in installing a flower garden, be vigilant about watering and bug patrol, and consider how to fill gaps made by harvesting. Flowers and herbs are great choices to use in any vegetable garden, because they attract beneficial insects, but they are particularly great in a garden that’s designed on aesthetic principles.

Enjoy your beautiful veggies!

20 Minute Breakfast From the Garden

As we approach summer vegetable harvest,
here is one of my favorite breakfast recipes.

6:00 am: Thank you ladies!
(You may have to buy your eggs.)

6:01 am: Summer squash!

6:02 am: Green peppers!

6:03 am: Onions and tomatoes!

6:10 am: Veggies sliced thin and ready for cooking!

6:15 am: Eggs fried sunny side up!
Veggies sauteed in olive oil with herbs!
6:20 am: Eggs on bed of veggies garnished
with fresh chives and sliced tomatoes!
Healthy! Ecological! Inexpensive! YUMMY!
Not a single ingredient you can’t pronounce!
I love gardening!

Garlic harvest

I love to toil in the soil. Not everyone does. I have a corner lot and as cars drive past my vegetable garden I’m sure some folks are thinking- “what a dope that guy is, if he added up all of his time and expenses he’d see it’s cheaper to go to Safeway for his veggies.”

I harvested my ‘German White’ hard-neck garlic on Saturday. I created a new 16 ft. X 4 ft. bed last fall and planted 4 rows of 55 cloves each last November. My investment was 10 lbs. of garlic ($50) for planting, 4 bags of compost ($16) and some fertilizer ($3)- a total of $69. I don’t put a $ value on my gardening time- it’s a gift to myself, my family and friends.

I harvested 205 solid bulbs (about 45 lbs.) and discarded about 15 bulbs that were way small or rotted.I would have to pay about $200 to buy that much good, fresh garlic at a farmers market and about $135 to buy much lower quality garlic from a supermarket.

I also harvested garlic greens and scapes from April through June that would have cost another $20.And with the garlic out of the ground I’m ready to come back with a double row of bush beans that I’ll put in the freezer.

Grow It and (Sometimes They) Eat It

Gardening is full of surprises, especially for a novice like me. I became a Master Gardener in Washington County in April 2009. This is also my first year “seriously” growing food. For the past three years in Keedysville I grew a few cherry tomato plants and herbs. Prior to that, as an apartment dweller in Bethesda, I unsuccessfully tried to grow numerous potted rosemary and basil plants on the sunniest windowsill that I had.

Earlier this month, while examining the four flat-leaved parsley plants growing in my new, very sunny, square foot garden (4’x4′ raised beds following the “All New Square Foot Garden” method of Mel Bartholomew), I was startled to see a caterpillar.

Mystery caterpillar on my parsley

My first reaction was, “You don’t belong on MY food! I’m going to pick you up and squish you under my garden clog!” Fortunately for the crawling creature, I’m not yet used to touching caterpillars, and I wasn’t wearing gloves. The bug was saved by my second reaction–curiosity.

It reminded me of another caterpillar I’d seen last July in my native garden. It was so striking I sent its photo to my Master Gardener friend Marney Bruce, who promptly identified it as a Monarch caterpillar.

Monarch caterpillar

So I figured that this one might also metamorphose into an interesting butterfly, but was taken aback by a second creepy crawler on my parsley that looked REALLY weird.

Mystery caterpillar #2 on my parsley

Annette Ipsan, Extension Educator at the Maryland Cooperative Extension (MCE), Washington County, identified the first caterpillar. It had also shown up in the curly parsley we’re growing at the Washington County Demo Garden, and is a Black Swallowtail (unsurprisingly, it’s also known as “parsleyworm”). We think the weird one may have been an early instar–one of the younger growing phases–of the Black Swallowtail; though perhaps not, because it may be too large. Can you identify this guy?

Key lessons I learned from my experiences:

  1. It’s not very easy to identify caterpillars, but it sure is easy to lose track of time while trying! I didn’t know there are so many different kinds of swallowtail caterpillars, or instars, or plants they use as hosts. More about Black Swallowtails here and here. Note that these caterpillars can also feed on carrots, fennel and dill.
  2. Since I’m growing food using solely organic methods, the mother butterfly felt safe to lay her eggs on my parsley. As long as the critters don’t eat it all and leave enough for us humans, I’ll gladly share the bounty! (A few years ago, as my husband shucked corn I’d bought directly from a local farmer, he was startled to find a gray worm-like creature happily nibbling on the corn. I told him, “Cut off the tip with the worm, throw it in the compost bin, and let’s eat the rest. If this corn is good for the worm, it’s good for us.” And it was.)
  3. If I carefully wash my homegrown food, I’ll have delicious veggies that will be much healthier for my family than the (take a deep breath before reading this!) pesticide-sprayed-imported-from-other-continents-wilted-looking-tastes-and-smells-like-plastic stuff from the supermarket.

Having discussed the critters chomping on my parsley, here’s how we enjoy it:

  1. A handful mixed with salad greens, used as a condiment. Especially good with homemade vinaigrette. (Even better if the salad includes ripe homegrown thinly sliced tomatoes!)
  2. Finely chopped as a final garnish on a heaping plate of pasta with any kind of tomato sauce, or any kind of sauce built with olive oil and garlic. By the time the plate reaches the table the fresh parsley has warmed and wilted, and its essential oils are at their maximum potency.
  3. If you’re harvesting more parsley than you can normally use I recommend Tabbouleh, a flavorful and nutritious Lebanese salad I’ve enjoyed since my childhood. The parsley can be at center stage as in this recipe, or more ingredients can be included.

A lesson from Mother Nature

On a routine inspection of the vegetable garden at the governor’s mansion, I was horrified to find that the tomato plant in one of the containers was covered with mealy bugs. First off, I had never seen mealy bugs on a tomato plant. Now, they were here at the mansion. My head started spinning wondering what to do. I brought nothing to combat these fuzzy foes. And this is the mansion! It has to be perfect, right?

I took a deep breath to compose myself and put on my detective’s cap. Of the four containers we planted, all had a tomato plant. All but one had herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects. The other had a mesclun mix and a sweet potato vine planted with it. This particular container was also the one with the least amount of sun. And, you guessed it, the one with the mealy bugs. Just coincidence? I think not.

Since I had no weapons of mealy bug destruction, I knew I had to return later with a game plan. As it turns out, I could not get back for two days. I returned with a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a whole pack of cotton balls and a spray bottle with soapy water. Once again, panic set in. How much damage can mealy bugs do in two days? Should I have brought a hazardous materials suit like the fire department wears? Maybe I should have brought new plants as replacements. Do you think anyone would notice if I just repotted the container?

As I turned the corner, I expected to see one big massive mealy bug ball of fuzz. To my surprise, I could still see a tomato plant, a sweet potato vine and mesclun mix. When I got up close, I could still see mealy bugs but there was no additional damage. I armed myself with the alcohol and cotton balls and went to work. Somehow, I found great pleasure in eradicating them one by one.

Wait a minute, why does that one look so funny? Then it hit me. As a Master Gardener, I find myself at plant clinics telling people not to panic. Beneficial insects will come. I took a break from my high speed killing frenzy to once again make a thorough examination. I discovered an army of lacewing nymphs happily consuming my fuzzy little nightmares. They were grabbing them by the throat and sucking the life out of them. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic but I suffered through two days of agony because of those mealy bugs.

Although the nymphs were doing a fine job, I still could not resist wiping out a few more on my own. Sorry fellas, you can’t have them all!

Delicious but dangerous!

Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)is an Asian bramble species that produces luscious fruit in mid-summer. I know gardeners who have discovered the plant in wild and semi-wild areas, tasted the fruit, and then propagated the plant in their landscapes from root cuttings. BIG MISTAKE!

This exotic invasive prefers wet areas and can be found choking out native plants throughout Maryland. You may be able to manage it in your landscape but animals will spread seeds far and wide. Cut it down or treat it with a systemic herbicide (glyphosate, triclopyr) if you find it on your land. Plant blackberry, raspberry and blueberry if you’re looking for delicious fruit that won’t get out of control.

No-till garden from scratch

Many Master Gardeners have related successful experiences with the lasagna garden method of creating new garden beds. Pat Lanza has popularized these techniques in her books, which I am determined to read. The concept is simple: cover areas of turf with newspaper or cardboard and then apply layers of organic materials, like shredded leaves, grass clippings, and compost. Over time, everything breaks down and so that you can plant seeds and seedlings directly into the bed without digging and turning the soil.

This fits perfectly with sustainable gardening- build up and conserve organic matter and prevent soil erosion and nutrient run-off. The added bonus is no weeds! But as a person who loves to see, smell, and feel soil, I was having a bit of a tough time embracing the concept. Well, we put it to an initial test this spring in one of the 4 new beds at the Grow It Eat It demo garden at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Ellicott City.

Newspaper was laid on an 8-ft. X 8-ft. area of turf in April and then covered with a 2-in. layer of LeafGro- a commercial yard waste compost. This picture was taken May 8. The grass clippings on the bed are from weed whacking the walkways (we then covered the walkways with shredded pine bark mulch). The edges of the newspaper are still visible.

June 12- bush bean, Swiss chard, kale, and cucumber were direct seeded in the LeafGro in late May, and are growing well. There are no signs of the newspaper or turf, other than decomposing roots.

Linda Branagan is the Howard Co. Master Gardener tending this demo garden. We’ll report on yields later. For now, I’d give this method a big thumbs-up.